12 May 2015
Blasphemy, art and hate
Jonah Goldberg believes he's caught some liberals in an inconsistency. He's noted the way Pamela Geller, the organizer of the Draw Muhammad contest that was attacked unsuccessfully by two wannabe mujaheddin earlier this month, has been almost unanimously condemned as a hatemonger in the media. This strikes Goldberg as an inconsistent position for liberals to hold if they did not two decades ago criticize Andreas Serrano and Chris Olifi for artworks then notorious for their offensiveness to Christians. For those who've forgotten, Serrano is the creator of Piss Christ, while Olifi used elephant dung in a painting of the Virgin Mary. Despite protests from Christians, Goldberg recalls, liberals defended these artists' absolute right not just to free expression, and not just to offend Christians with absolute immunity -- though it remains doubtful whether Olifi in particular even meant offense -- but also, and most irksomely to Goldberg, their absolute entitlement to taxpayer funding of their art. The relevance of this last point to the Draw Muhammad contest is tangential at best, but Goldberg is so stoked by twenty-year old scandals that he drags in Thomas Jefferson to argue that a person shouldn't have to subsidize "ideas he disbelieves and abhors" without mentioning that the ideas Jefferson had in mind were religious doctrines -- which would seem to indicate, if anything, that Jefferson would object just as much to the state compelling citizens to defer to the taboos of any religious denomination. What he objected to specifically in the quote Goldberg cites is the support of a religious establishment through taxation of people of other religions or denominations; I suspect he'd think of state patronage of the arts somewhat differently, even as I doubt he'd recognize the work of Serrano or Olifi as art. This leaves Goldberg's implicit equation of the two pretentious artists and the Islamophobe provocateur. Geller has been called a hatemonger because her attitude toward Islam is self-evidently partisan. Call me inconsistent if you like, but I think there's a difference between seeing the faults of Islam as the faults of religion (or at least monotheism) in general, on one hand, and faulting Islam mainly because it's not your religion. But it's one thing to call Geller out for obvious bias and to suggest, as Goldberg claims Chris Cuomo did on Twitter, that she had no right to stage the contest. Cuomo reportedly equates the Draw Muhammad contest with the sort of "fighting words" that courts have denied the absolute protection of the First Amendment. That's plain wrong, unless Cuomo wants to argue that everyone on Earth has an obligation to respect Islam's taboo on picturing its prophet, and that failure to do so is hate. Meanwhile, Goldberg invites us to see the works of Serrano and Olifi as hate speech, implying that they were as offensive to Christians as Geller's contest was to Muslims, if not more so because American Christians, as taxpayers, were forced to subsidize their exhibition with some fraction of a cent apiece. To be clear, his point is not to argue for the suppression of Piss Christ, though he would prevent any involuntary public funding of its display if he could. His main point, having re-established to his satisfaction how offensive those art pieces were, is to note how unresponsive liberals are when Christians take offense, while criticism of Geller is presumably responsive to Muslims having taken offense at the contest. Goldberg holds himself up as a model of consistency because he'd oppose Geller getting an NEA grant she's never sought. But he hints that liberals are inconsistent, by his standard, because they're cowards, and because "Violence pays." Yet Goldberg reads like the most liberal -- or should I say politically correct -- person in the room in his insistence on recognition of Christians' hurt feelings over those silly exhibits. Because they're offended, Piss Christ is blasphemous -- or is it the other way around? -- and equivalent, if only in debate points, to hate speech. Aren't self-styled conservatives like Goldberg the ones telling all the wussie babies to get over it when their feelings are hurt and get on with life? If he wants to tell Muslims that, I'm all for him, but the fact that he brings up the controversies of the Nineties suggests that too many people on his side haven't gotten over the perceived slights of the past. If his point is that we shouldn't care if Muslims' feelings are hurt, then we still don't have to care if Christians are still offended over Piss Christ. As far as I can tell he's caught one person, Chris Cuomo, in an inconsistency -- and that's presuming Cuomo had an opinion about art twenty years ago. Some of us are consistent on this issue, however, and it's in keeping with that consistent principle that I can tell Goldberg to go screw himself.